The Hedda Syndrome: Three Acclaimed Actresses Peer into the Psyche of Ibsen's 'Infinitely Perverse' Heroine

By Hostetter, Martha | American Theatre, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Hedda Syndrome: Three Acclaimed Actresses Peer into the Psyche of Ibsen's 'Infinitely Perverse' Heroine


Hostetter, Martha, American Theatre


MOUNTING A CLASSIC IS A PROCESS OF excavation. In looking for what Strindberg called the "nut" of the drama, theatre artists sort through the detritus of past productions--the fingerprints left by the many directors, designers, actors, translators and critics who have handled it before. When this process works, we say that a production is "fresh," that the classic has been "resurrected" for our time--implying that it's been buried, like some artifact. But a classic drama doesn't exist in stasis, somewhere back there. Instead, it is played out over time and space as a slowly unraveling conversation. Classics are classics not because we "discover" them, but because they're continuously discoverable.

Henrik Ibsen's 1890 masterpiece Hedda Gabler has been fueling world theatre for 110 years. Along with A Doll's House and Peer Gynt, it is the most performed of Ibsen's plays. The character of Hedda herself is irreconcilable--witty and charming; idealistic and romantic; capable of great intelligence, even wisdom; but she is also banal, materialistic, snobbish and determinedly cruel. Both victim and victimizer, she is at the heart of our fascination with the play.

Ibsen wanted a drama with the emotional depths and metaphorical range of Shakespeare, but one that could exist within the musty drawing rooms and gaslit parlors of the 19th-century middle class. He includes the unseemly details--the slipcovers on the furniture; the insinuating in-laws; the petty jockeying for wealth and position. Ibsen found the bare bones of Hedda's story in two newspaper tabloid stories--one about a young woman who killed herself in Munich and another about a young wife who burned her husband's manuscript. Both women did these things, the papers reported, for no discernible reason. In creating Hedda, Ibsen recorded his knowledge of the human soul, and then wrote his audience's rejection of it into the play: "People don't do such things!" declares the fastidious Judge Brack, after Hedda shoots herself in the head.

Ibsen was on hand to witness the miserable failure of the Hedda Gabler premiere in Munich, in 1891. Later that year, in Paris, the actor playing Hedda--who had loudly declared her complete incomprehension of her character--took refuge in one of the era's stock characters: the femme fatale. It took an American named Elizabeth Robins, an unknown and penniless actor living in London who was cast in the first English-language production in April of 1891, to unleash Hedda's theatrical possibilities. Robins argued that, since this "new drama" offered a different vision of the human condition, it demanded a different kind of acting. Most critics decried the play's moral "pestilence," even while grudgingly admitting its theatrical power: "So specious is the dramatist; so subtle is his skill in misrepresentation, so fatal is his power of persuasion that, for a moment, we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine and not a fiend," Clement Scott wrote in The Daily Telegraph. But the production became an extraordinary popu lar success, and a group of influential writers, including William Archer, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, rallied around the Ibsen cause.

Henry James--a writer who knew something about malignance and repressed desire--produced a landmark critical response, "On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler." The play is "the dramatization of a condition more than an action," James wrote, and Hedda herself is "infinitely perverse," but she is also "various and sinuous and graceful, complicated and natural; she suffers, she struggles, she is human, and by that fact exposed to a dozen interpretations." Ibsen, James predicted, was "destined to be adored by the 'profession.' He will remain intensely dear to the actor and the actress. He cuts them out work to which the artistic nature in them joyously responds--work difficult and interesting, full of stuff and opportunity."

James was proven correct: Hedda soon became the Lear of the classical women's repertory, one of the great, truly daunting roles.

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